Australian universities face a period of unprecedented uncertainty after Prime Minister John Howard's decision to call a general election for October 9. The surprise announcement means that vice-chancellors will have to put on hold almost all their preparations for fees and student support for the 2005 academic year, which begins in January.
Labor is leading in the polls and has promised to reverse several of the Liberal Government's key higher education reforms. These include allowing universities to introduce top-up fees for the first time, expanding the number of full-fee places for Australian students and introducing a new loans system for full-fee payers.
A majority of the nation's 38 public universities had decided to raise the government-set Higher Education Contribution Scheme charges by up to 25 per cent next year and most were also planning to offer more full-fee places.
The Government claims universities will be A$830 million (£324 million) worse off if Labor bans top-up fees.
Although the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee adopts a neutral political position during elections, six of its leading members have warned that a Labor victory would cost their universities tens of millions of dollars in lost fee income.
Jenny Macklin, Opposition education spokeswoman, said that abolishing full-fee places and restricting Hecs charges to the current levels were a high priority and would be among the first policies to be implemented. But universities would not be worse off as Labor would boost higher education spending by A$2.4 billion over the next four years.
Ms Macklin has so far ruled out any transition arrangements, other than allowing students currently paying full tuition fees to complete their courses.
In July, the AVCC called on whichever party wins power to increase investment in higher education from A$4.5 billion in 2004 to A$13 billion over the next 15 years.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations said that since the Howard Government won power in 1996, it had stripped universities of some A$5 billion in funding, failed to index grants and allowed class sizes to balloon.